The Ways of Walls and Words April 15, 2015 The Ways of Walls and Words Sabrina Vourvoulias Can the spirit truly be imprisoned? Ballroom Blitz April 1, 2015 Ballroom Blitz Veronica Schanoes Can't stop drinking, can't stop dancing, can't stop smoking, can't even die. Dog March 25, 2015 Dog Bruce McAllister "Watch the dogs when you're down there, David." The Museum and the Music Box March 18, 2015 The Museum and the Music Box Noah Keller History is rotting away, just like the museum.
From The Blog
April 17, 2015
Spring 2015 Anime Preview: The Hellish Life of a Pizza Delivery Boy
Kelly Quinn
April 16, 2015
The Disney Read-Watch: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Mari Ness
April 15, 2015
Recasting The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Stubby the Rocket
April 15, 2015
The 10 Strangest Transports in Non-Driving Games
N. Ho Sang and Peter Tieryas
April 14, 2015
An Open Letter to HBO from House Greyjoy
Theresa DeLucci
Showing posts by: Kage Baker click to see Kage Baker's profile
Feb 14 2011 7:06pm

The Bird of the River (Excerpt)

Kage Baker

The sun came up. It warmed Eliss’s back and felt good after the freezing night. From their camp up here on the hilltop she could look down into the river valley, where it was still dark. The river barges lay silent in the blue gloom, and only now a white transparent trail of smoke from a galley cookfire rose up through the shadows into sunlight, flaring into red and gold.

A thundering crash of disappointment followed, however.

Eliss found the pipe and pouch, right there beside their campfire. She crouched down and stared into her mother’s face. It was a young face, but lined and exhausted, with shadows.

Eliss told herself that just because Falena had left out the pipe and the pouch didn’t have to mean she’d been smoking the Yellow again; maybe she’d taken them out but resisted the urge. Maybe she’d realized how stupid it was to smoke Yellow the night before asking for a job, especially when times were so hard. Maybe, after struggling with herself, she’d realized how disappointed Eliss and Alder would be when they saw she’d broken her promise again. . . .

Falena sighed and shifted. Eliss looked back at her and watched as her mother opened her eyes. Eliss felt her heart sink. Falena’s eyes were yellow again. After all she had said about starting a new life for them . . .

Eliss averted her eyes, too angry to speak. She watched sidelong as Falena sat up, yawned, and, noticing the pipe and empty pouch, swept them hastily under a corner of the blanket. Falena was in her early thirties. She had been plump and shapely most of her life, but in the last few years had grown thin, especially in her face; smoking Yellow took away the appetite. She used to say she did it so as to leave more food for Eliss and Alder, but then Eliss had discovered how much it cost.

And it cost more than the money they so seldom had. A thin diver found it hard to get jobs, for only plump women could survive the cold of the deep sea or the rivers. Worse: Falena did terrible, stupid things when she smoked Yellow. It was because Falena had done stupid things that they had wandered without a home the last four years, from camp to camp, from uncle to uncle.

Even the uncles were fewer and farther between now, as Falena’s looks faded. Alder couldn’t remember them all. Eliss could. The clearest in her memory was Uncle Ironbolt, who had had gang tattoos and a lot of money, and been a genial man when he wasn’t drinking. He had actually provided them with a house for a couple of years, before a rival killed him. That had been back before Alder was born.

Eliss remembered Alder’s father. Alder was now ten, small and stocky. He had used to be a placid child, calm in the worst crisis, but lately he had started to show a temper. He rolled over, on the far side of the ashes of their campfire, and sat up. “It’s going to be hot today,” he said.

“What are you, the Weather Cricket?” said Falena, giggling. He glared at her, seeing the yellow color in her eyes, and looked at Eliss. She looked back and made a hopeless gesture.

“Oh, what are the two of you so sour about? It’s a bright sunshiny day! And maybe Mommy will get a nice sunshiny job today. Lissi, I’ll pack everything up. You get dressed, baby. Lissi, why don’t you take the baby and go down there, see if one of the stallmen will sell you something to eat?” Falena pointed down into the river valley.

Eliss rolled her eyes. She had no money to buy anything. Surely her mother knew that? But this was one of the lies to cope with it all: Falena was hoping the stallmen would have pity on two homeless waifs and give them something, a little fried fish or some boiled straj meal. Alder pulled on a long shirt with a hood and stood up. “I’m dressed. Let’s go.”

“But people can still see your legs, baby.”

“I don’t care. It’s hot.” Alder was tired of hiding the color of his skin.

“Lissi, make him put some pants on.”

“It’s a long shirt,” said Eliss. “Nobody’ll see. It’s hot, Mama.” “You kids,” said Falena with a sad laugh, shaking her head. “It’s so little I ask of you, you know? And all for your own good . . .” Eliss scrambled to her feet and took Alder’s hand, leading him away down the hill to avoid another whining argument.

“What are we really going to get for breakfast?” asked Alder.

“What ever we can find,” said Eliss. Alder nodded and pointed into a green patch on the yellow hillside, a few feet off the trail.

“There’s water under that. Got a stick?”

Eliss pulled a stick from a dead bush and gave it to him. Alder waded out through the yellow grass and dug with the stick, and in a few minutes came back with three big muddy tubers. Together he and Eliss found a spot just out of sight of the hilltop, where they settled on a fallen tree trunk and Eliss drew her little knife. She peeled the tubers and sliced them up. The tubers had crisp white flesh, juicy and cold, a little sweet. Eliss had no idea what they were but Alder always knew what sort of wild-grown things were good to eat.

They were still sitting there, crunching up the last of their breakfast, when Falena came wandering down the trail. Eliss stood up and waved and her mother came straggling over, lugging their bundles and the cookpot.

“What did you get?”

Eliss held out the third peeled tuber. “You want me to cut it up for you?”

“Thank you, Lissi baby, Mommy would like that.”

Falena ate slowly, often stopping to remark on how nice the tuber slices tasted. Even when she had finished, she seemed disinclined to move from the fallen trunk.

“This is a nice spot, you know?” she said at last. “Beautiful view of the river. We should have made camp here last night, instead of up on the hilltop. Dumb thing to do. That cold old wind blew all night.”

“Yes,” said Eliss. “Well, why don’t we go on down?”

“Oh, there’s no hurry,” said her mother, slowly rocking herself to and fro. “I mean, we’re here now. At the river. Lots of barges down there. What do you say, kids? Why don’t we just camp here a couple of days? Let me get my strength back from the long walk.”

“No, I think we ought to go talk to the barge captains now,” said Eliss. “We don’t know how long they’ll be there. Remember what happened at Port Blackrock?”

“And Green Hill,” said Alder. “And Sendrion.”

“All right, all right.” Falena drooped. “You kids never forget anything, do you? Lissi, take the cookpot.”

They went down the trail, which was so steep they had to lean backward to keep from falling, and at the last descended through a gully cut in the crumbling mud of the bluff, backing down on hands and knees. Finally they stood on the plank platform of the river town. Eliss looked around with interest.

The place was beginning to awaken. A man, still munching his breakfast, walked up to one of the great ware houses and unlocked its doors. There were hammocks strung in the underbranches of a great tree that overhung the riverbank, and now people began to emerge from them, throwing out rope ladders and climbing down. They went to stand in line before a big tent on which was painted LOADING OFFICE. People were waking up on the great barges and lighting cookfires, and so were the stallmen who sold fried fish and hotcakes. A crippled man wheeled himself out over the planks to a sunny spot, put down a can for donations, and struck up a tune on a hurdy-gurdy.

Eliss was fascinated. She’d never seen such a place; all the other cities of the Children of the Sun were cut from stone, solid and permanent, sometimes without so much as a single tree to show the seasons changing. Here, though, everything endured by floating. The docks on which all the stalls and ware houses stood were made to ride and fall with the river’s flow, like anchored barges. The stalls and ware houses themselves were lightweight and temporary, so many tents and board-and-batten shacks. And Children of the Sun sleeping in trees? She had thought only the Yendri lived that way, in their brush villages back in the forests.

And here were some Yendri after all, wading out into the shallows off the far bank like so many herons, raising their hands to pray. No one was taking any notice of them except Alder, who stared. And no one had noticed what color Alder was at all. Eliss decided it was a good omen. If Falena failed to get a job, at least it wouldn’t be because one of her children was of mixed race.

“Where’s your certificate, Mama?” Eliss asked. Falena stopped and dug around in her bundle until she found the scroll, somewhat tattered and crumpled now, the certificate from the Salesh Divers’ Mother house testifying that Falena was a trained diver able to hold her breath for as long as it took to recite the Prayer to Brimo.

“I guess I’ll need it,” said Falena.

“Of course you will!” Eliss felt the surge of anger and panic that came when she suspected Falena was going to sabotage herself again. “Are you crazy? You know that’s the first thing they’re going to want to see!”

“Don’t upset me,” said Falena, with an edge in her voice. “This is going to be hard enough.” Alder tugged at Eliss’s hand and shook his head silently. Eliss pursed her lips, but trudged doggedly toward the nearest barge, towing Alder after her, and Falena had to follow. A deckhand was sweeping, sending puffs of straw chaff through the scuppers. “Excuse me,” Eliss called from the foot of the gangplank.

“Sorry, I haven’t been paid in a month,” the deckhand replied, not looking up.

“We aren’t beggars!” Eliss felt her face grow hot. “Does your captain need a diver?”

“What?” The deckhand raised his eyes. “Diver? No, we’ve got a diver. She’s a good one, too.”

“Well, do you know of anybody around here who needs to hire a new diver?”

“Lissi—maybe we shouldn’t—”

“Couldn’t say.” The deckhand studied them, looking puzzled. “You didn’t check with the River Maintenance Office?”

“Should we?”

“Well, yes.”

“Where is it?”

The deckhand pointed to a rambling shed on the next dock.

“Thank you and may the gods bless you,” said Eliss, and turned and made off for the shed, still pulling Alder along.

As they jumped the shifting space over the green water between docks, Falena said: “Lissi, I know we talked about this . . . but, you know, the truth is, I’m not so sure my lungs are up to it anymore, and—”

“All you need to do is stop smoking and they’ll get better,” said Eliss. “And if you have a job you can sleep someplace warm and there’ll be enough food, so you won’t catch so many colds. You’ll be fine. Come on.”

The River Maintenance Office hadn’t opened for the day. There was a water clock behind the window-grille, with the pointer creeping up toward the hour.

“See, we can’t talk to anyone yet,” exclaimed Falena.

“It’s only half an hour,” said Eliss. “We’ll wait.” She dropped her bundle and sat, immovable, and Alder and Falena had to drop their bundles and sit too. The sun, which had been such a blessing after the bleak cold of the night, was soon unwelcome. It poured down sticky heat in the motionless air. The green trees all along the tops of the river gorge seemed to droop and melt as the day heated up; Eliss wouldn’t have been surprised to see smears of green like candle-wax running down the clay bluffs. The insects started in with a buzzing drone. The smell of the river, rank and weedy, became oppressive.

Just as Alder and Falena were getting mutinous, however, the pointer reached its grooved mark. There was a faint plonk and a little silver figure with a trumpet swung up from the rear of the clock. A shrill whistle sounded. At the same moment, a woman opened the door from within, kicking the sill where the door stuck.

“Good morning!” Eliss stood up, practically under her nose. “Are you the person we would ask about jobs for divers?”

The Rivermistress took a step backward. She wore a long necklace of green agate beads, her badge of office. “Are you looking for work?”

“She is.” Eliss pointed at her mother. The Rivermistress looked doubtfully at Falena, who gave a feeble giggle. Her hair had gone limp in the heat and she looked tired and dispirited. The Rivermistress averted her eyes.

“Dear, you don’t seem up to the weight,” she said.

“She’s been sick,” said Eliss. “And she really needs a job.”

“Where’s her certification?”

“Right here.” Eliss thrust the scroll at the Rivermistress, who took it and peered at it. “Of course she doesn’t have the weight right now to dive in the sea, but the rivers are warmer than the sea, aren’t they? And we thought, well, a river job would be perfect for her until she’s stronger, just shallow warm dives. Please. I need my mother to get better.”

The Rivermistress twisted up her face and retreated another step backward. “Of course you do. Come in. Have a seat. Let me see what I can do for you.”

They filed in and sat on a long bench, with Falena fanning herself and making soft complaining noises. Alder sat with his fists clenched, staring out the doorway. Eliss kept her gaze riveted on the Rivermistress, who went to a great bound book on a lectern and turned through its pages. She looked older than Eliss’s mother but strong, with no trace of gray in her hair. Eliss thought she looked kind. Eliss hoped she was.

“I could help her, too,” Eliss told the Rivermistress.

“Are you certified?” The Rivermistress looked up at Eliss.

“No-o, but I’ve been watching her dive my whole life.”

The Rivermistress shook her head. “It’s harder than you think, dear.”

“That’s what I always tell her,” said Falena, shaking her head too. She rubbed her left arm. “Never listens. Everything’s harder than you think, Lissi.”

“You could try the Bird of the River,” said the Rivermistress. “That’s the big river maintenance barge. She’s here now. They always need divers.”

“What kind of work is it?” Falena asked.

“Clearing snags, mostly,” the Rivermistress replied. “Salvaging wrecks, when they happen.”

“That’s not as hard as making hull repairs.” Eliss looked at her mother. “You said so. How much does it pay?” she asked the Rivermistress.

“Food and lodging, provision for divers’ children, and a copper crown piece for every snag cleared. With a doctor’s care, if you get hurt. Bonuses for any wreck refloated and/or salvaged.”

“That’s not much,” protested Falena.

“It’s better than what we have now,” said Eliss.

“It’s the standard rate for shallow-water work.” The Rivermistress closed the big book. “Take it or leave it. Your choice.”

“She’ll take it. Where do we go?”

The Rivermistress pointed. “Three ware houses down. The one on the end has a big kingfisher painted on it, right? And just beyond that are some pilings painted green, and that’s where she’s moored. You can’t miss her. She’s bigger than anything else. The Bird of the River. Her captain’s Mr. Glass.” She hesitated before adding, “Though maybe you’ll want to talk to Rattleman. Mr. Riveter, that is. That’s the first mate.”

The Bird of the River was, yes, bigger than anything else, and that included the floating settlement itself. Eliss thought it was bigger than a few villages she’d been through, a whole separate town of huts and tents built on one barge. There was even a windmill, its vanes rotating lazily on a tower on the aft deck platform. The Bird’s deck was broad and scarred, streaked with yellow mud. Women crouched around a central deck house where the galley fire had been lit; they waited to cook breakfasts or heat water, dandling babies as they gossiped. Men went back and forth in a line, loading on sacks and crates of supplies. Children dove from the rail into the river, or chased each other across the deck. At each corner was an im mense capstan for hauling up chain and in the center a great mast was mounted, with a furled square sail and an observation platform above her crosstrees. Her figurehead was tiny by comparison, a sawn figure in her keel where it rose above the rails, the cutout shape of a little singing bird. Its flat wings were thrown out, its head arched back as though in joy.

“This must be where the gods will smile on us at last,” said Eliss. “Don’t count on it,” said Falena in a dull voice. But she followed her daughter to the edge of the dock.

“Excuse me.” Eliss waved to get the attention of a small boy who sat on the nearest capstan, fishing. “Could we come on board and see Mr. Captain Glass?”

“Captain’s drunk again,” the boy informed them.

“See?” Falena said to her daughter.

“But you can talk to my daddy if you want.”

“Well, is your daddy the—”

“Daddy! There’s some ladies want to talk to somebody. Some ladies and a . . .” the child stared at Alder. “And they got a greenie with them!”

Alder ground his teeth. “Well, there it goes,” said Falena, turning away. “I told you.”

“Wolkin, what did I tell you about climbing up there?” A man strode toward them, a sack of meal on his shoulder, but he was glaring at the boy.

“Not to do it when we’re hauling cable. But nobody is, Daddy. And anyway—” the boy pointed at Eliss and her family. “She needs to see you about something, and there’s a greenie.”

“Are you the first mate?” Eliss asked the man, grabbing at Falena’s arm to keep her from skulking away. “Mr., er, Rattleman?”

“Rattleman Riveter.”

“Right! That’s who we were supposed to ask for. You need to hire a diver, right?”

Mr. Riveter looked them over uncertainly, shifting the sack to his other shoulder. He was a man of average height, lean and bearded and fearsomely tattooed, but his face was open and rather innocent. “I suppose we do,” he said. “Do you know one who’s looking for a job?”

“She is,” said Eliss, pulling Falena closer and waving her certificate at Mr. Riveter. “She’s certified and trained and everything.”

“Daddy, look at the greenie!”

“Wolkin, that’s not a nice word!” Mr. Riveter peered at the scroll, slightly crosseyed. “So, er, you’re Miss . . . Mrs. Hammertin?”

“Don’t call me that again,” said Alder to the boy, quietly.

“You want to mess with me?” Wolkin threw down his fishing pole and jumped to his feet on the capstan. “You don’t want to mess with me. I know Mount Flame assassin moves!” He balanced on one foot and struck an aggressive pose.

“And, er, it says here you’re certified to deep dive. We don’t pay deep divers’ wages, though,” said Mr. Riveter.

“That’s all right. She doesn’t mind taking a shallow-diver’s pay,” said Eliss.

“I’m a Yendri,” said Alder to Wolkin. “You don’t want to mess with me either.”

“And, er, Mrs. Hammertin, do you have any, er, health problems of which I should be informed?” said Mr. Riveter.

“My chest hurts sometimes,” said Falena.

“She’s been a little sick,” said Eliss. “But she’s getting better fast.”

“Oh. Well, that’s nice to hear.” Mr. Riveter eyed Falena, scratching his beard. “You’re sure.”


“Mount Flame assassins kill! You never even see them coming! Yaii!” screamed Wolkin, launching himself from the capstan at Alder. He judged his leap badly and missed the edge of the dock, vanishing in a fountain of green water.

“Wolkin!” A woman in diver’s harness ran to the edge of the barge and looked accusingly at Mr. Riveter. “He wasn’t supposed to go in the water until his ear is better.”

“I don’t think he meant to fall in,” said Mr. Riveter.

“He came in crying last night for the drops in his ear—” began the woman. She paused, waiting for Wolkin to surface, but the little trail of bubbles coming from below stopped. “Wolkin!”

Mr. Riveter dropped his sack, and Wolkin’s mother began to scramble over the rail, but Falena had already slid out of her tunic and dived into the green water. Mrs. Riveter was poised on the edge of the dock, ready to leap in after her, when Falena resurfaced with Wolkin in her arms. The little boy’s face was pale, he was coughing and gagging, and began to cry when his mother took him from Falena.

“He got caught under a cross-piling,” said Falena.

“Please don’t make me wash the dishes,” Wolkin begged.

“We’ll talk about it later,” said Mrs. Riveter. She looked at Falena. “Thank you. Were you trying to get a diving job?”

“Yes, she was,” said Eliss.

“You should hire her,” Mrs. Riveter told Mr. Riveter, and carried Wolkin away up the gangplank. And that was how they joined the crew of the Bird of the River.



Copyright © 2010 by Kage Baker

Nov 23 2010 9:30am

The Green Bird

Kage Baker

To honor the magnificent career of Jack Vance, one unparalleled in acheivement and impact on the fantasy genre, George R.R. Martin and Garner Dozois, with the full cooperation of Jack Vance, his family, and his agents, created the tribute anthology Songs of the Dying Earth. The best of today's fantasy writers were invited to work in the unique and evocative millieu of the Dying Earth, wfrom which they and so many others have drawn so much inspiration, to create their own brand-new adventures in the world of Jack Vance's latest creation.

We hope you enjoy this complete story from Songs of the Dying Earth, about, in author Kage Baker's words, “a liar and thief in a doomed world of liars and thieves.”

* * *

It amused Justice Rhabdion of Kaiin to dispose of malefactors by dropping them down a certain chasm located at the edge of his palace gardens. 

[Deep and steep-sided the chasm was...]

Dec 21 2009 10:25am

Ancient Rockets: A Christmas Past

I don’t know, Muriel, he told me he was Santa Claus and I could trust him with my wallet.

Happy Holidays! In this Christmas stocking you’ll get an assortment of silent films topical and timely, thanks to the careful stewardship of Kino International and Paul Killiam.

A Christmas Past gives us a fascinating look at early American observations of Christmas in the 20th century. It’s amazing to see how much of the standard mythology for Santa Claus was already in place; it’s also interesting to observe that it was already a cheerily secular holiday, despite current claims that holiday inclusiveness is a recent invention of the devil.

The first piece up in this collection dates from 1901. A Holiday Pageant At Home, filmed 108 years ago while Queen Victoria still sat on the throne, presents a mother and her children sewing, reading and chatting in their middle-class home. In comes the father of the family, apparently announcing he wants a pageant prepared for Christmas. In the next scene, the two youngest girls stiffly make some sort of recitation with synchronized gestures; the older girl, in particular, looks as though she’d rather be anywhere else than in front of the camera. Next scene the prologue is past and our play consists of an older brother and sister dressed in adult clothes, relentlessly scolding the youngest girl, who weeps theatrically. But she is avenged! In comes the youngest boy, dressed as either a bandit or a pirate, brandishing a Bowie knife and a pistol. He chases the unpleasant pair until they fall to their knees and beg for mercy, at which the littlest girl cheers and claps. Father kisses Mother for a pageant well directed and that’s all, folks! This is interesting for its look back at the Victorian Christmas custom of amateur theatricals at home, and also for the relative novelty of the camera. Most of the principals stare frankly at the cameraman. It’s much more like a home movie than a studio production.

Next up is A Winter Straw Ride, from 1906. Two sleigh-loads of young ladies go riding through the snow in a small town somewhere in upper New York state.  They whoop, they cavort, they fall off the sleighs, and chase a number of unfortunate young men across the snowy fields. Having knocked them down, they proceed to scrub snow into the men’s faces and clothing. That’s it for plot. These rather alarming hoydens tend to dress like members of the Oyl family—big boots, heavy long skirts, and heavy rolled turtleneck sweaters. One is reminded forcibly that this is the generation that fought for (and won) the right to vote.

[Read more...]

Dec 14 2009 11:58am

Ancient Rockets: Silent Carols


There will be spoilers; to begin with. That must be perfectly understood, because I don’t want to hear any whining from someone who grew up in a cave without benefit of books, TV or radio, thereby missing any of the countless versions of this holiday classic trotted out every year. Come on! You all know how this story goes. From Roger Zemekis’ latest slapstick outing with dead-eyed CGI characters back to the animated offerings by Richard Williams and Mr. Magoo—from Alistair Sim to George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart—everyone’s had a go at adapting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

[Read more...]

Dec 8 2009 3:33pm

Ancient Rockets: The Flying House

Psychoactive cheese!

Well! Just when I thought the last of the relevant goodies had rolled out of the Winsor McCay Xmas stocking, I found a little gem stuck way down in the toe.  The Flying House, from 1921, is one of the Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend series and was actually drawn by McCay’s son Robert. Its theme is both SFnal and timely, what with Pixar’s UP coming out on DVD, so let’s have a look.

Flying House opens with a couple retiring to bed. They had a delicious Welsh Rarebit for dinner, but the wife is worried: will she have nightmares? The husband gruffly tells her that rarebit never gives him bad dreams. Both nod off. A moment later, however, the wife wakes with a start, alone in bed. Where has her husband got to? And what are those strange noises coming from upstairs?

[Read on...]

Dec 1 2009 11:49am

Ancient Rockets: The Pet

Stitch? Stitch? Sorry, you have me confused with someone else.

By 1921, Winsor McCay had learned enough about self-promotion to bill himself, and justly, as “the inventor of animated drawing.” Sadly, he shortly lost interest in making any further films, working on other projects until his death in 1936. We’re lucky that he completed his animated Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend series first with The Pet, a disturbing little science fictional romp.

The Pet opens, naturally, with a couple retiring to bed. The husband remarks that he ate a delicious rarebit at his club that evening; the wife chides him, because everyone knows that eating the rich cheese dish before bedtime brings on nightmares. Hubby says he can’t help it; he loves rarebits so! And his doom is fixed...

A little animal creeps up the walk in the couple’s garden. Despite calling out MEOW in block capitals, it doesn’t look much like a kitten. Is it a puppy? A bear cub? Who cares? It’s cuuuuute, coos Mrs. Rarebit Fiend, scooping it up and taking it into the house.

[Read more...]

Nov 24 2009 1:27pm

Ancient Rockets: Wolf Blood

Fix the health care system? Why?

After Universal Studios failed to copyright their  1925 Phantom of the Opera, they realized that the horror films  were cinematic gold, and they swiftly proceeded to capitalize on Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman and other denizens of the Laemmle ranch. Those images were merchandised as model kits, Halloween costumes, and lunch boxes. And, of course, as  perpetual remakes.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the trend was to reference the stories’ literary sources: Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There was an Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mummy, but it was a bit of a weasel job—rather than the immortal Karloff classic we all know and love, it merely referred to a Conan Doyle short story about a mummy that happened to reside in a university dorm room.  When The Mummy was eventually remade, it was full of so much special effects flash and period costuming that most people didn’t notice or mind how little it resembled the original film. Appropriately enough, there is no Ur-text for The Mummy.

No real effort was made to do a full-out werewolf remake. Curt Siodmak, who wrote the screenplay for 1945’s Wolfman, supposedly based it on one of his own short stories, after all. It bore little resemblance to 1939’s Werewolf of London, and even less to the granddaddy of all werewolf films:  1929’s Wolf Blood.

[Read more...]

Nov 9 2009 10:21am

Ancient Rockets: Haunted Castle

I’m bored... let’s do something evil.

It is occasionally nice to be reminded that even geniuses have their off days.

You’ve seen F. W. Murnau’s 1922 horror classic Nosferatu, right? Hopefully in the restored edition from Kino? A brilliant creepfest from its opening frames. You would think, wouldn’t you, that his Haunted Castle (aka Schloss Vogeloed) from just a year earlier would be full of signs of budding talent? Especially with the great Fritz Arno Wagner (Nosferatu, Der mude Tod, the Dr. Mabuse films) as cinematographer?

Not so much, actually. In fact, hardly at all. In fact... Haunted Castle will have you shaking your head at the bitter irony that this film survived the ravages of time while Der Januskopf, Murnau’s celebrated Jekyll-and-Hyde knockoff, is lost.

[Read on...]

Nov 2 2009 11:52am

Ancient Rockets: Phantom of the Opera

Why, yes—this IS a new look for me!

Everyone knows this story. Or thinks so...

You may have first encountered the Phantom in one of his modern incarnations, which have become increasingly swoony and romantic. Claude Rains’ battered old musician sported a mask to hide the acid-burned side of a normal face; the mask shrank even further for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, to enable him to sing all those passionate pleas to Christine Daae. By the time the musical was filmed in 2004, there seemed barely any reason for Gerard Butler’s buff Phantom to wear a mask at all. All of which undermines the logic of the story, because when your facial booboos could be fixed by a couple of trips to a good dermatologist, why bother with the whole hiding-in-the-cellars and pretending-to-be-a- ghost bit?

[Read on...]

Oct 26 2009 4:47pm

Ancient Rockets: Waxworks

Boris! Hang in there, I’m calling a lawyer!

This week we’re looking at Waxworks, from 1924. We’re back with the German Expressionists and look who’s here! Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, Emil Jannings and William Dieterle, to name but a few. Waxworks is an anthology film like Der mude Tod, three stories set within a framing device, and while less profound is spooky, playful, and fun to watch, especially if you’ve grown to appreciate the acting ranges of the principal players. If it misfires in the end, it’s pretty plain it only did so because the filmmakers ran out of money. This is one of those occasions when a time machine would be useful: I’d love to go back, write out a check for however many marks they needed, and see what the director, Paul Leni, might have done with it.

[Read on...]

Oct 19 2009 4:18pm

Ancient Rockets: Usher Falls, Twice

Am I feeling strange? Now, why would you ask that?

In honor of the season and as a tip of the hat to S. J. Chambers’ ongoing articles about the first American master of horror and suspense, we’re looking at a pair of silent films based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

It was filmed twice in 1928, once by French avant-garde filmmaker Jean Epstein and once by American experimental filmmakers James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. The American version is short, clocking in at just over 13 minutes, without any title cards to let you know what’s going on. Unless you’ve read the original Poe story upon which it is based, you’ll find it a bewildering series of dreamlike images. If you have read Poe’s original, though, you’ll find that Watson and Melville’s film nicely pantomimes the essence of the story. Never read The Fall of the House of Usher? It’s short and available online. Go read it now. I’ll wait.

[Read on...]

Oct 12 2009 1:15pm

Ancient Rockets: Strong & Silent, Day 5

George hear twig snap...


That sound, my friends, is a man’s acting career in its death throes. The culprit was Tarzan the Tiger, the year was 1929, and Frank Merrill was the unfortunate who happened to be playing the Lord of the Apes at the moment cinema sound technology was making its first experimental squeaks and gurgles.

Tarzan the Tiger is one of those late silent films marketed as a sound picture, something like the “Simulated Stereo” recordings of the early ’60s: the film was shot in silence, but a recorded musical score with some sound effects at appropriate moments was supposed to create the illusion of  a talkie. You hear cocoanut shells impersonating hoofbeats, primitive noisemakers impersonating lions and gorillas, and—oh, dear—Frank Merrill’s actual human voice, in his best effort at the Victory Cry of the Bull Ape.


[Read on...]

Oct 5 2009 1:31pm

Ancient Rockets: Strong & Silent, Day 4

You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.

1927’s Tarzan and the Golden Lion ought to have been one of the more notable Ape Man epics. Loosely adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel of the same name, it had Burroughs’ own enthusiastic support, largely because James Pierce, the actor cast as Tarzan, was hand-selected by Burroughs as most closely resembling his creation.  Alas, Golden Lion failed to wow the critics, and we’ll let Mr. Pierce himself explain why:  “Because of poor direction, terrible story treatment and putrid acting, the opus was a stinkeroo.” His rancor was no doubt sharpened by the fact that, at Burroughs’ request, Pierce dropped out of another film to play Tarzan. The film was Wings and Pierce’s part was filled by a young unknown named Gary Cooper. Cooper’s career went straight up, and Pierce never starred in another vehicle in his life. He did, however, marry Burroughs’ daughter Joan. One hopes the alcohol did not flow freely at family dinners.

[Read on ...]

Sep 28 2009 1:21pm

Ancient Rockets: Strong & Silent, Day 3

Whaddya mean - “No shirt, no shoes, no service?

Next up on our list of Strong and Silent Survivors is 1921’s The Adventures of Tarzan. Even so, what we have here is a fragmentary work. It was originally a 15-part serial and has come down to us as a neatly re-edited 10-parter.  It opens with a replay of many of the events in  1918’s Tarzan of the Apes and most of the first chapter is spent bringing the audience up to speed, just in case there was still anyone out there who wasn’t familiar with the Origins of Tarzan. Since this serial also features the return of Elmo Lincoln as a spectacularly beefy Ape Man, this makes for a nice sense of continuity. The plot is primarily derived from two of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, The Return of Tarzan and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar.

[Read On ...]

Sep 21 2009 11:49am

Ancient Rockets: Strong & Silent, Day 2

I better go get the school nurse! Oh... that’s right, we’re in the jungle...

The Son of Tarzan, from 1920, is a pleasant surprise—even if it is a fifteen-part serial with the necessary cliffhanger ending every half hour or so, and endless artificial crises and padded-out scenes. There is a lot to mock in this film, coming as it did from a Poverty Row studio and being shot on the cheap. How cheap? Check out the Arab Sheikhs with painted-on beards and mustaches, wearing obvious bathrobes. At the same time, though, there is a lot to praise.

If you’ve read all the Edgar Rice Burroughs books, you’ll be pleased to know that this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel on which it is based. If you’ve only ever seen the Weissmuller movies, you may be thinking that Son of Tarzan refers to Boy, the kid Tarzan and Jane found and adopted—because of course they never married in the Weissmuller continuum, and therefore (since it was the 1930s) Never Had Sex. Surprise! In the Burroughs books they did marry and produce a real live baby of their own.

[Read on...]

Sep 14 2009 10:33am

Ancient Rockets: Strong & Silent, Day 1

And I’ll buy you a silk dress, Mama, and all the bananas you can eat...

When a Grand Master like Fritz Leiber writes an authorized adventure featuring Tarzan (AKA Lord Greystoke), and no less an authority than Philip Jose Farmer connects everyone’s favorite Ape Man with the Wold Newton universe, we can justifiably consider his films in this space. The original 1912 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs reads at times like a silent film plot; it’s no wonder that the Lord of the Apes leaped onto the silver screen early and often.

Perhaps the first filmed version of Tarzan’s story was the best; it’s certainly the most faithful to Burroughs’ original book. Tarzan of the Apes, from 1918, and where it diverges it only makes the plot more plausible than Burroughs’ original, with an interesting racial subtext.

[Read more...]

Sep 7 2009 12:12pm

Ancient Rockets: Paris Qui Dort

One and two and con-ga!

While 1925’s Paris Qui Dort is not, as some exceptionally forgetful film historians have claimed, the first French science fiction film (Hello—Georges Méliès?), it’s certainly a seminal work. Its descendants include a couple of classic Twilight Zone episodes and its imagery is echoed in later end-of-the-world films like On the Beach. Yet Paris Qui Dort is short and sweet, a surreal little confection, slapstick frosting over a disturbing center. It’s a remarkable maiden effort for a young filmmaker, even one as talented as René Clair.

As the film opens it’s dawn in the City of Light, and a young night watchman emerges, yawning, from his shelter up on the third level of the Eiffel Tower. A vast silence greets him; this is a silent film anyway, of course, but Clair still manages to convey the immense unnatural absence of the sounds of a living city. Albert, the watchman, rubs his eyes and stares down in disbelief. The streets and parks are all deserted; there isn’t a soul moving anywhere below him in the brilliant morning light. Bewildered, he descends through the labyrinth of the tower and emerges at last at ground level.  

[Read on...]

Aug 31 2009 4:02pm

Ancient Rockets: The Bells

Why, no need to get upthet, thir... jutht take two athpirinth and call me in the morning.

The Bells (1926) is an early example of films-claiming-to-be-based-on-a-work-by-Edgar-Allan-Poe-but-not-actually. Universal cranked out a few in the 1930s, generally pairing up Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi; Hammer turned out several in the 1950s, with Vincent Price as various tortured protagonists or villains. Of all of these, The Bells has possibly the most tenuous connection with Poe, since it’s really a film treatment of a fairly famous turn-of-the-century play, Le Juif Polonaise, and Poe’s titular poem is simply a rhythmic tour de force about bells ringing. There’s a properly Poe-like theme of agonizing remorse following gruesome murder, though, complete with spectral accusers, so it rates a decent four out of five ravens on the Poe-o-meter.

It’s still one strange kettle of fish...

[Read on...]

Aug 24 2009 2:41pm

Ancient Rockets: Der müde Tod

Another one where any caption would be wasted...

It was Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite film. It inspired Luis Buñuel to become a filmmaker. And, unless you’re a dedicated silent film buff, I’ll bet you’ve never even heard of it.

I refer to Fritz Lang’s 1921 masterpiece, Der müde Tod, known where English is spoken as Destiny. “Weary Death” is a much better title, but if you’re planning to buy or rent this one, look under the English name. And, thank all the cinematic gods, you can buy or rent it, because Destiny has survived the ravages of time intact and reasonably pristine. Since its story is told with the utter simplicity of a folktale, it has survived changes in taste as well.

If supernatural romance is your thing—and I’m not just talking to you little gothgirls or Twilight fans, but also to anyone of my generation who used to stay up late to catch the 1947 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir or Portrait of Jennie—then Destiny is for you.

And, gentlemen, before you run for the exits, consider my opening lines. Hitchcock’s favorite film. Buñuel’s inspiration. Sure you don’t want to stick around and find out why? And were you at all impressed by Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, by the way? You were? I thought so. Sit down.

[Read on...]

Aug 17 2009 1:22pm

Ancient Rockets: Murnau’s Faust

Forget the gag caption this week. Look at the composition! The lighting!

For those of you who thought F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu was his greatest film, I have news for you: his Faust blows it out of the water.

A little background: the Faust legend dates back as far as the 16th century, and may have its roots in even earlier tales about the dangers of doing business with devils. Once codified as the Faust legend, though, its subject matter proved to be immensely popular. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Faust was a new archetype, a story that could be told and re-told with endless variations to make different points. Depending on the version, Faust might be an old fool, a fearless seeker after truth, a heretic, or a romantic hero. Faust has inspired a number of operas, one of which, Gounod’s Faust, was once the most-performed opera anywhere. Time has dimmed its charms a bit, but Mephistopheles’ serenade Vous qui faites l’endormie is still one of the most creepily romantic things I’ve ever heard. Like Jekyll and Hyde too, Faust was a favorite subject for early filmmakers. Several versions were made prior to Murnau’s 1926 film, but the only one I have been able to locate is a very brief trick film from 1911, viewable on YouTube if you’re interested. It will not impress you.

So Murnau was not selecting a particularly original subject for his last German film when he decided to adapt Goethe’s version of the Faust legend. What he did with it, however, broke new ground in filmmaking.

[Read more...]